Direct traffic is the most misunderstood source in Google Analytics. Most Analytics beginners understand common sources of traffic, such as Google/organic, Facebook/referral, and Google/cpc; they’re self-explanatory. But Direct traffic is trickier to comprehend, and we’ll dive into why that is in this article.
Isn’t Direct traffic those who type in a website URL directly into their browser or click from a saved bookmark in their browser?
Yes, it can be. In fact, Google’s own help center says that Direct traffic is:
“users that typed your URL directly into their browser, or who had bookmarked your site”
However, that’s not the entire truth. Thinking that all your Direct traffic is just people typing in your url or clicking a bookmarking is the biggest misconception behind this traffic source. Direct traffic can be better defined as traffic that cannot be attributed to a particular source. In other words, the source is unknown.
Understanding Source/Medium in Google Analytics
In the screenshot above, the Direct traffic “Users” nearly equals the “New Users.” To understand the significance, let me define both, according to Google:
Users who have initiated at least one session during the date range. Learn more about how Analytics calculates the number of users.
New Users: The number of first-time users during the selected date range. Learn more about how Analytics calculates the number of users.
This means that nearly all the unique visitors (Users) we’re also first-time visitors (New Users). In short, only 3 Users were attributed to having visited the site previously. With all these new, first-time visitors it’s hard to believe they all had the website bookmarked or memorized and still visited for the first time. That doesn’t make sense.
Before we go any further, let’s evaluate how Google recognizing traffic sources from a technical standpoint.
How does Google Analytics recognize different sources?
When a user’s browser is requesting access to a page on your website it can supply this “Referer” field, which is then accessible to Google Analytics. Google then reads and parses the value of the field, processes it, and then displays it in your Source / Medium report. This field is not mandatory though.
Keep in mind that Google Analytics utilizes a distinct process when evaluating referring sources of traffic. Outside of any manually configured overrides, Google follows this sequence:
AdWords parameters > Campaign overrides > UTM campaign parameters > Referred by a search engine > Referred by another website > Previous campaign within timeout period > Direct
Consider a user who discovers your site via organic search, then returns via direct a week later. Both sessions would be attributed to organic search because of the second-to-last “check” where Google identifies your previous campaign visit. Campaign data persists for up to six months by default so your “timeout period” is pretty big. The key point here is that Google Analytics is already trying to minimize the impact of direct traffic for you.
If Google works the aforementioned sequence and cannot classify your visit you are marked as Direct.
Run a test yourself
If you have Google Analytics installed on your website then open an incognito browser window and go to google.com. Then do a search for your website. Assuming your site isn’t invisible to search engines, you’ll see it show up. Click on the link.
Now, go to your Google Analytics and click on Real Time > Traffic Sources. You should see your active session show up and it should say you came from “Google/organic.” However, because you’re incognito you’ll see “(not provided),” which means you’ll get classified as Direct traffic.
By using incognito mode you’re not giving Google the ability to run its sequence of checks noted above. Therefore, you’re simply dumped into the Direct “bucket.”
Types of Direct traffic
- A user types in a URL into their browser
- A user clicks on a saved bookmark
- A user clicks on a link in Skype, whatsapp, FB messengers, IM: this is what’s known as “dark social” visits.
- http vs https: if a user clicks any link from a secured site (HTTPS) to a non-secured site (HTTP) no referrer data is passed through, thus this traffic is marked as Direct. All other scenarios, http to http, https to https, and https to http, pass referrer data. Keep in mind that your website should be on HTTPS. Assuming you have an HTTPS website then you’re covered. (If you link out to HTTP websites their Analytics will traffic you’ve referred to them as Direct.)
- A user clicks on a link in a non-web document PDF, DocX, ODF, XLSX or a different type of document.
- A user clicks on a link in a mobile app
- A user clicks through a URL-shortener
- There’s missing or broken tracking code on your website
- User clicks on a link in any desktop software: this is most common with email providers such as Outlook or Thunderbird. This is why it’s so crucial that you use UTM tracking with all email marketing that you do.
Cutting down on (improperly categorized) Direct traffic
- Utilize HTTPS: not just for tracking purposes but because it’ll show as “not secure” in a user’s browser)
- Take control of your re-directs: run a link check using Google Search Console
- Use UTM tracking: this is critical for all ads you’re running and all emails you’re sending
- Stay on top of your Analytics trends: watch for big jumps or drops from any one source
Direct (none) vs. Direct (not set)
The final piece to this puzzle is making sense of the two different types of Direct traffic. You might see in your Analytics report Direct/none and Direct/(not set). These are not the same thing.
(none) is unknown and found on any Analytics overview showcasing the source and/or medium driving traffic to your website. There is missing referrer information which can be attributed to any of the ten culprits above. This is the most common type of Direct traffic.
(not set) is typically found in Analytics reports where keyword data is shown. It is most commonly seen when viewing your top Landing Pages or Keywords. However, you may see it pop up in other areas, such as Channel Grouping, Browser, Geo Location, and Reverse Goal Path. Seeing (not set) in most of these areas is benign.
However, if your Google Ads are triggering (not set) then you’ll want to check the configuration of your ads. Double-check that:
- Auto-tagging is on and cost data is applied.
- There is no redirect in the destination URL of your AdWords campaign.
- The GCLID parameter is preserved.
- URLs are properly tagged in case of manual tagging
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